Essays · TV

‘Euphoria’ Reexamines the Love Triangle

In Season 2, ‘Euphoria’ defies the notion of conventional romantic geometrics.
Euphoria Season 2 Episode 4 Jacob Elordi Alexa Demie
By  · Published on February 1st, 2022

In the latest episode of Euphoria (“You Who Cannot See, Think of Those Who Can”), the tension that has so far been semi-neatly packaged in Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) and Nate’s (Jacob Elordi) covert love affair finally begins to bubble over. After finding out that Nate is in the process of reconciling with Maddy (Alexa Demie), his ex-girlfriend and Cassie’s best friend, Cassie dolefully blackmails him, warning him that she’ll reveal their secret to the world if the two get back together. Nate greets this threat with dismissiveness and rage, but when Cassie turns her back to leave, he blurts out that he loves her.

This long-awaited confrontation brings with it all of the drama and catharsis we have been hoping for this season, between Cassie finally asserting power over Nate by warning him that she has the power to make his life hell and her priceless reaction when he accidentally calls her “Maddy.” But this scene’s delightful histrionics nimbly bring something else to the table: a reconsideration of the very tenet of the on-screen love triangle.

When thinking of movie and TV romances that feature love triangles — from The Notebook to Gone With the Wind to The Graduate, and everything in between — it might be easier to name the ones that don’t have them than the ones that do. In most cases, the triangle serves one purpose: to demonstrate the strengths of the movie or TV show’s central relationship. If Rose gives up a massive fortune to be with Jack in Titanic, for example, she must really love him, right?

But in Euphoria, the function of the love triangle is a little different. Instead of serving to show the strength — or lack thereof — of the show’s relationships, it instead offers revelations about the individual characters themselves, revelations which likely would not have been reached were the characters not in this triangle.

Cassie presents her grievances with Nate through the guise of him and Maddy not being good for one another, instead of simply admitting that she wants to be with him. This is a pretense that is easy to see through, given that we have already established that Cassie is distraught at the notion of Nate not liking her back, (her jumping out of his car when he says he wants to stop seeing her, for starters). Cassie’s reasons for wanting Nate and Maddy to not be together are entirely selfish.

If Cassie doesn’t actually care about keeping Maddy and Nate apart for honorable reasons, then what are these characters’ relationships to Maddy, really? Yes, Maddy and Nate have been engaged in an on-again-off-again, tumultuous relationship since the first episode of Euphoria, and, yes, Maddy and Cassie are supposed attached-at-the-hip-besties. But that’s not the whole story, and their love triangle finally exposes that truth. Perhaps Cassie’s most revealing moment in all of Euphoria is when, while fighting with Nate in the latest episode, she explains to him that Maddy is crazy — but she is crazier. Here, she finally compares herself to her best friend, raising suspicion that, instead of being hopelessly in love with Nate, she is instead terrified of existing in another girls’ shadow.

And, notably, a lot of Cassie’s efforts to catch Nate’s attention manifest in her attempting to upstage Maddy. Recall Cassie’s rituals of primping herself to earn Nate’s gaze. These endeavors only pay off when she gels her hair like her best friend and wears a sweatsuit that Maddy also owns. In the most recent episode, too, Cassie changes into a hot-pink one-piece swimsuit at Maddy’s birthday party, which looks eerily like something the latter would wear. It seems to be the case, then, that Cassie’s paramount, defining relationship is not with Nate, but with Maddy. And through that relationship, her fear of being left in the shadows shines through.

So what does all of this mean for Nate? It is more than likely the case that he is aware of Cassie’s attempt to win him over by imitating Maddy; in public, he withholds his attention until she shows up in Maddy-esque garb. And yet, his façade, too, crumbles during his and Cassie’s explosive confrontation. When Cassie becomes emotional, Nate reacts in a disproportionately angry manner. But when she leaves, suddenly rendering him powerless to her whims — perhaps she will tell Maddy about the affair — Nate crumbles, telling Cassie that he loves her. But does he, really? The answer is more-or-less inconsequential. What matters, in the end, is that this moment of vulnerability suggests that what Nate likes about Cassie is the power that he wields over her. The moment he becomes defenseless, he turns into a shell of a person and has no idea how to act.

Later in the episode, another triangle starts to deteriorate, threatening to keep two people apart who, like Maddy and Nate, wreak a fair amount of havoc. The potential lethal couple in question? Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer) (bear with me). Particularly in this week’s episode, it is clear that Rue puts Jules on a pedestal, glamorizing her in the same way she glamorizes drugs. Just look at the opening scene, where Rue imagines her girlfriend as Greek goddess Venus de Milo, or a Disney Princess, or Frida Kahlo. This romanticization puts an unfair amount of pressure on Jules: one misstep and Rue might relapse.

When Rue and Jules’s relationship is expanded into a triangle with the introduction of Elliot (Dominic Fike), the latter is used inadvertently to poke holes in the formers’ relationship. It is Elliot’s idea to steal alcohol from a gas station, which leads to a fight between Rue and Jules that reveals the chief tension of their relationship: Jules considers herself to be the keeper of her girlfriends’ sobriety, and Rue resents her for it. Elliot also allows Jules to be herself sexually — something she is not able to entirely achieve with Rue. The presence of Elliot makes it impossible for Rue to continue to hide her sobriety, while also allowing Jules to realize that her free-natured spirit cannot flourish in her current relationship.

And then there’s Cal (Eric Dane), who is arguably the centerpiece of Euphoria’s latest episode. In a flashback in Season 2, Episode 3, we see Cal’s origin story: when he was a teenager, he was in love with his best friend, Derek (Henry Eikenberry), but then his girlfriend became pregnant and Cal was forced to hide his true identity. Cal’s suppressed past comes out in this past episode, in a manner not dissimilar to Cassie’s explosive monologue. Returning to his house from a bender, Cal pees on his extravagant foyer and then explains to his stunned wife, Marsha (Paula Marshall), and Nate that he likes men, and he is tired of pretending to be someone he’s not.

Although Cal’s rant seems at first like a solitary endeavor, within the context of the episode it becomes clear that he, too, is experiencing a love triangle that, like Cassie’s, allows for his true self to finally shine through. The triangle in question here comprises himself, his wife, and his long-lost-teenage-love, Derek. Indeed, at the root of Cal’s acrimony is a deep sense of loss, a loss which he ultimately blames Marsha for and which, too, might be at the root of Nate’s aggressive hypermasculinity, imposed on him by his father.

Of course, the characters of Euphoria are ever-changing enigmas, but I’d like to posit that this most recent episode was the most revealing yet. And a fascinating character study is bound to continue to emerge in a show that favors character growth over romantic relationships.

Watch the latest episodes of Euphoria on HBO Max.

Related Topics:

Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.